A change of image for a female star usually involves sex. If she wants to be seen as cool and edgy, she has to maintain a balance- be a sexual object but still look like she is in control on screen/ stage. Take last week’s Miley Cyrus’s controversial VMA 2013 performance that is blasting the Americans in a dizzy.
Our own Vidya Balan, for example, turned her image of ” sweet, traditional Indian woman ” to ” edgy, cool, sexually confident” in Dirty Picture. Balan was hailed as gutsy, bold, a new face of Indian woman not afraid of her sexuality. She suddenly went from behenji to edgy modern woman by.. by what?
There is no doubt that Balan is one of the best we have. But to call the movie and her character Silk as ‘female empowerment’?
Silk is not sexually empowered, rather she plays on every sexist stereotype with gusto a la Rakhi Sawant. She uses her body in a way expected by ambitious women, and her character goes through no arc when she starts failing in her career. It is always her body that is on display for the movie’s deglammed male characters and male viewers. The fat hanging on her is simultaneously supposed to arouse and disgust at the same time. No amount of witty dialogue and bold gestures can actually erase the message of the film, perfectly articulated in the climax. Silk, a tragic figure lying dead in a red saree and Sindoor, we viewers mourning the essence of Indian womanhood that she missed: marriage!! This comes after enjoying 2 hours of unabashed sexual objectification cloaked in female aggression.
In similar but less shocking vein , Ishquiya also plays on the femme fatale trope and while far more subdued, Balan’s character impresses us with her manipulation of male characters using her sexuality, again in a very stereotypical manner.
I am all for sexual expression and being bold. But then it should be equally performed by men. When it comes to female stars, why don’t we determine coolness and edginess of the artist by performance and story arc? I know you will say, Kahani and yes, there is zero objectification, she is an active agent through and through. But the film had far less cultural impact/ popularity than Dirty Picture.
The point I am trying to make is not that of a critique of Balan, who I adore. And who does pushes the boundaries of what a female star is supposed to be without fear. Point is, how she instantly became ‘cool’ only when she started getting bold about her sexuality, even while the characters she played were totally dependent on men for survival and character growth.
An Irrfan Khan or a Ranbeer Kapoor or a Nasseruddin or an Amitabh do not need to use the tired old coin of ‘sexuality’ when changing image or climbing coolness ladders.
Coming back to former Hannah Montana fame Miley Cyrus’s MTV VMA performance that is being criticised and ridiculed all over American media. Hannah Montana was one of the popular girl characters even on Indian TVs. As someone closely associated with kids media, I am fascinated by her transition from ‘ america’s Disney sweetheart’ to ‘ america’s latest female child star gone wild’. Move over Lidsay Lohan and Amanda Baynes!!
There is the usual expected slut shaming- especially Cyrus’s twerking to Robin Thicke, who is 16 years older than her, and sings his famous song ‘blurred lines’ that is borderline rape apology. “How could this sweet girl do this? Every virginal girl has a slut hidden in her after all!! What would the kiddis think?” Nobody is saying anything about Thicke, of course, since he is a man and can not be a slut.
Miley’s offensive appropriation of black culture for shock value has been rightly criticised.
And last but not the least, the type of sexual objectification in the video has drawn widespread criticism from feminists. Her constantly stuck out tongue, giggling face, slightly out of control body language, choreography that positions her as a sexual object, stripping on stage, twerking at spectators etc. do not suggest any sexually empowering performance: but that of being an object for male eyes, symbolized by the older performer Thicke, who hardly looks at her even when she is performing vague sexually submissive poses with him.
Miley is no Balan or Lady Gaga, who manage to be sexual objects while maintaining agency and control. There is also difference in talent. Miley Cyrus’s performance is cringeworthy.. even more than Shahrukh Khan’s in Chennai Express. She comes across as desperate and wannabe. So it could just be the fact that she did something she couldn’t carry off and that is why she has attracted so much disgust.
But the fact remains that Female performers’ bodies are invariable parameters of judging them. Cool, behenji, modern, edgy, international, traditional and what not.